Change and the Jesuit Tradition

Award-winning writer Tim Egan's words of wisdom for graduates

Written by Tim Egan
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
September 13, 2012
At the 2012 Undergraduate Commencement ceremony, New York Times columnist and best-selling author Tim Egan, who calls the Seattle area home, delivered the keynote speech. Here is what he had to say to the new crop of alumni:

I want to talk in my brief remarks here about change and why we should not fear the future just outside these doors.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, someone told me that, "If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less." Often, we have no control over change. But that doesn’t mean we are passive to these forces.
I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve had triumphs, using nothing but words and curiosity as my tools and guide.
But, I’ve also suffered some awful blows. When I was 22, the age of many of you, I lost my two best friends. They were killed, about six months apart, in separate car accidents. One was my artistic, sensitive  friend. The other was my jock and cerebral friend, a running partner and soulmate. When they died, I was crushed. I fell into a deep, black hole. I missed them terribly. I was afraid I’d never build a lasting friendship again.
At that point in my life, greeting the world as a struggling adult, a most unwelcome change had been thrust upon me. I had to learn  a basic lesson: that you cannot get through this world alone. And so, I did learn, slowly, to nurture other friendships, to dip my toes back into the big sea of humanity.
Now, here in 2012, and I may be the last person on the planet who is not on Facebook, despite pressure from my bosses at the New York Times. You’re missing out, I’m told repeatedly, on all those digital friends. Well, so be it. I’ve tried  to develop flesh and blood friends. That requires work. That requires imagination. And imagination, as Albert Einstein said, is more important than knowledge.

I realized then, at the age of 22, you have to take detours. For at age 22, nobody really knows how their life is going to play out. And if you do, if you think you have it all mapped out, fate will play a trick on you.

Also,  I should tell you something my grandmother told me when I was your age. She said, “At age 20 we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.”
Another kind of change is the one engulfing us daily: technical change. Now, despite my fore-mentioned aversion to Facebook, I love many of the technical innovations of modern life. My favorite tool, all time, is the iPhone. Every bit of breaking news and stored knowledge, a GPS, the complete Beatles catalogue, all these pictures, the world—in the palm of my hand. I love it, but it will not love me back. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Same thing is true with a corporation. A colleague at the New York Times suffered a terrible setback in her otherwise stellar career. She made a mistake, was publicly criticized and felt the paper didn’t have her back. This will happen to you in the workplace. You will give your all, endless 12-hour days. You will come in on Sunday. You will volunteer for extra projects. And then, one day, you’ll feel unwanted.  My colleague went, in tears, to her boss.  She couldn’t understand how this great institution had let her down. And her boss said something that’s stayed with me ever since.
He said, a corporation will not love you back. By its very nature, a corporation is not a family. It is not a living, loving or even thinking organism. It will not return your affection.
Now, I disagree with the Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, which said corporations are people. I think it was profoundly wrong-headed. Talk about change: With that one decision, our entire democratic process was uprooted, with the balance shifting to the already powerful.
The Earth itself is changing and much of it is our fault. The global consensus of climate scientists is that by century’s end, temperatures will rise  4 to 7 degrees, which would be catastrophic, with widespread crop failures, and wildfires. The Maldives, a string of islands off Indian coast with a high elevation of eight feet, may be the first nation to drown.
It sounds Biblical, I know. What can you do? How could anything on the 50 acres where you’ve spent the last four years, that Jesuit oasis in the middle of urban Seattle, affect this messy, troubled planet? How do you embrace this kind of change?
It starts with something simple: Connect to nature. Watch a long-legged blue heron lift off. Nurture a garden. Stick your face in a winter storm. Make wine. Go into the woods in the fall and pick chantrelle mushrooms. Feel the healing power of this planet and then…go out and fight for it!
You know, these Jesuits were fabulous teachers. What I remember from them is how much they challenged us to think for ourselves, and ignore fads and trends.  One priest said you must be in constant search for your God and yourself.

So now, in the face of accelerated change of all our major institutions—technology, democracy, the planet itself—the imperatives of the Jesuit tradition, dating 450 years,  are more vital than ever before. And what are those imperatives? To question conventional wisdom, to nurture the heart as well as the mind, to go forth and engage the world.
You leave here today with a commodity from Seattle University. That commodity is the ability to think clearly, to think logically, to think humanely. You’ve been apprentices of this great tradition until now, when you are released—masters of the method.
Which brings us, finally, to the biggest change of your life yet. That is today. The rest of your days begin in about an hour. Unscheduled. Unpredictable. Scary, yes. Daunting, of course. But exhilarating as well.
Each of you had to write an essay in order to get in here. You don’t have to write an essay to get out. But if you did, I would ask you  to consider where you want to be in five years, 10 years, 50 years. And more important, ask yourself what kind of person you want to be.  And if you do that, if you’re honest, that constant search for self and soul, you will have no need to fear the future.

For in fact, history never repeats itself, but the unthinking person always does.
Thank you. Take flight, graduates! Congratulations!
Tim Egan, speaking at this year's undergraduate commencement ceremony, has written extensively about this corner of the country.
The Class of 2012, and our newest alumni, embark on the next chapter of their lives.